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Will lithium-ion batteries still be enough for future electric cars?


As the world shifts to electric vehicles to reduce climate change, it is important to quantify future demand for critical battery materials.In a new report, Chengjian Xu, Bernhard Steubing and a research team from Leiden University in the Netherlands and Argonne National Laboratory in the United States show that demand for batteries based on lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese oxides will increase many times between 2020 and 2050.

As a result, the supply chain for lithium, cobalt and nickel will need to expand significantly and possibly find more resources.However, relative to the development of the EV fleet and the battery capacity of each vehicle, there is great uncertainty.Although closed-loop recycling plays a smaller but increasingly important role in reducing demand for primary materials through 2050, researchers must implement advanced recycling strategies to economically recover battery-grade materials from end-of-life batteries.The study has now been published in Nature Communications Materials.

The development of electric vehicles

Electric cars have less impact on climate than combustion engines.This advantage has led to a huge increase in demand, with the number of fleets worldwide growing from a few thousand a decade ago to 7.5 million by 2019.However, the average size of the global car market remains limited and future growth is expected to dwarf the absolute volume growth of the past.

Lithium-ion battery (LIB) is currently the leading technology for electric vehicles. A typical automotive lithium-ion battery has lithium, cobalt and nickel as its negative electrode, graphite as its positive electrode, and aluminum and copper as its other components.Battery technology is currently moving in the direction of new and improved chemistry.

In this work, Xu et al. studied the global material demand for lightweight electric vehicle batteries, ranging from lithium, nickel, cobalt to graphite and silicon, and correlated material demand with ongoing production capacity and known reserves to discuss key factors for improving batteries.This work will assist the transition to electric vehicles by providing insight into the future demand for battery materials and the key factors that will drive it.

The number of electric cars is growing

Based on two scenarios from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the research team forecasts growth in the number of electric vehicles by 2030.These include defined policies related to existing government policies (STEP), as well as sustainable development (SD) scenarios aligned with the Paris Agreement climate goals (30% of global sales of electric vehicles by 2030).

In this analysis, Xu et al. extended these scenarios to 2050.To meet the STEP scenario, approximately 6TWh of battery capacity will be needed annually by 2050.Material requirements will depend on the choice of the three battery chemical materials currently under consideration.

The most likely scenario is the widespread use of lithium-nickel-cobalt-aluminum (NCA) and lithium-nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM) batteries (hereafter called NCX, where X stands for aluminum or manganese).By 2030, this will lead to the development of battery chemistry.Lithium iron phosphate (LFP), as a cathode material for lithium-ion batteries, is expected to be used more and more in future electric vehicles.

Although the low specific energy of LFP battery will affect the fuel economy and range of electric vehicles, LFP battery has the advantages of low production cost, good thermal stability, long life and so on.LFP batteries are currently common in commercial transportation vehicles such as buses, but they also have broad prospects in light electric vehicles, including Teslas.

Battery material demand and recycling potential

The scientists then assessed global demand for electric vehicle batteries and noted that lithium demand growth was only slightly affected by the specific chemical composition of batteries, while nickel and cobalt had a greater impact on demand.

The team further predicts that the demand for lithium-ion batteries will increase from 2020 to 2050, and with it the demand for nickel batteries.In this way, they forecast cumulative demand for lithium from 2020 to 2050 at 73-18.3 million tons, cobalt at 3.5-16.8 million tons, and nickel at 18.1-88.9 million tons.

Xu et al. went on to show the materials in the discarded batteries and discuss how recycling these materials could help reduce the production of key materials.The existing commercial recycling methods of electric vehicle batteries include pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy.Fire recovery involves smelting the entire battery or battery component after pretreatment.Hydrometallurgy is the recovery of battery materials by solvent extraction and precipitation on the basis of acid leaching.

In closed-loop recovery, hydrometallurgical treatment can be followed by pyrometallurgical treatment to convert the alloy to metal salts.The purpose of direct recycling is to recycle the anode material while maintaining the chemical structure of the anode material, so as to achieve the purpose of economy and environmental protection, but this method is still in the early stage of development.

The future of electric cars

In this way, Xu, Bernhard Stubin, and colleagues have developed models showing that battery capacity for lithium, nickel, and cobalt will have to increase dramatically because demand for electric vehicles could exceed current production even before 2025.Battery materials can be supplied without exceeding existing production capacity, but supply must be increased to meet demand from other sectors.

These supply risks may change as potential new reserves are discovered.Demand for battery capacity will depend on technical factors such as vehicle design, weight and fuel efficiency, as well as fleet size and consumer choice of electric vehicle size and range.

The direct recycling method is the most economical and environmentally friendly closed-loop recycling process because it can recycle the anode material without smelting and leaching processes.A successful transition to electric vehicles will depend on a sustainable supply of materials to keep up with the growth of the industry.